How One Game Became Cincinnati’s Baseball Holiday
By Greg Rhodes
Cincinnati Reds Team Historian
“It’s a holiday—a baseball holiday! Ain’t no other place in America got that!”
— Sparky Anderson
When Sparky Anderson arrived on the scene with the Reds in 1970, Opening Day was an established holiday in Cincinnati. You can’t find it on the calendar, but make no mistake: Opening Day is baseball’s annual festival and nowhere is it celebrated like it is in the Queen City.
But, in the beginning, it was just another game.
Season openers in the early days of baseball were nothing special. Cincinnati’s home opener, as was true with all the other clubs, drew little attention from the press and the public. There were no sellout crowds, no hoopla, no ceremonies and no parades.
Then in the late 1880s, motivated in part by the formation of a second major league, teams began to compete more aggressively for attention and fans. And opening day became the first salvo in the promotion wars of the baseball season. Over time, Cincinnati became the King of Opening Day in baseball. By 1900 most of the traditions we associate with Opening Day, were in place: capacity crowd at the ballpark, dignitaries and festivities, and the pre-game parade.
No doubt part of the reason the opener was so celebrated in Cincinnati was a quirk of the schedule: The Reds are scheduled to open every season at home. It has been this way every year—with one exception—since the Reds first joined the National League in 1876. No other team is granted this privilege.
Why the Reds were granted this honor in the first place has been lost to history, although it appears it was a combination of geography, opportunism, and money. In the early days of the National League, the Reds opened at home every season and apparently this was due to Cincinnati's location as the southern-most city in the league. Groundskeeping was in its infancy and fields were often a mess in the early spring. The more northern cities were happy to go on the road, and give up the opener for more comfortable conditions. Even when the Reds moved to a second major league—the American Association—for nine years in the 1880s, the Reds new league kept giving them the home opener. (Except in 1888, the only year the Reds were scheduled to open on the road.)
When baseball began promoting opening day more aggressively, the Reds, led by business manager Frank Bancroft, had a built-in advantage with this schedule in hand. The Reds could make this an annual affair, and throughout the 1890, after the Reds re-joined the National League, Bancroft tirelessly promoted the opener. And for that, Bancroft, or "Banny" as he was fondly called, is remembered as the "Father of Opening Day."
By the 1900, the game was almost always sold out. The success insured that the Reds kept getting the opener at home. Why jeopardize an almost guaranteed sell-out? The visiting clubs didn’t argue; after all they got a cut of the gate.And nearly everybody, in fact, was at the park. Often the Reds drew their largest crowd of the year on Opening Day. The Crosley Field Opening Day attendance record was set in 1924: over 35,000 somehow squeezed into the park. By the late 1930s, with the Reds resurgence as a National League powerhouse, the Reds drew standing-room-only crowds year after year. Capacity was under 30,000 at the old park, but the Reds drew 30,644 in 1939, and over 34,000 in 1940 and 1941. The overflow sat in temporary seats in the outfield, a custom that dated back to the late 1800s. The Reds put a dozen rows of wooden chairs on the Crosley terrace up against the outfield wall. They weren't the most comfortable seats, but who was complaining when you got your chance to see Ernie Lombardi, Frank McCormick, Ival Goodman, Johnny Vander Meer, Bucky Walters, Paul Derringer and the other stars from those championship years of 1939 and '40. (The custom of seating the overflow in the outfield ended in 1959.)
The Reds stumbled in the 1940s and 1950s with many losing seasons, despite stars such as Ewell Blackwell, Ted Kluszewski, Wally Post and Gus Bell. Yet the opener only grew in stature. The tradition of playing the opener a day early began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The annual sellouts and hoopla even drew the attention of The Today Show in 1956. Dave Garroway and his crew, including his famous mascot, a chimpanzee named Mr. Muggs, set up a set on Fountain Square and somehow managed to finish their broadcast despite nearly freezing in early morning temperatures in the high 30s.
That 1956 opener featured the debut of a baseball Hall of Famer, 20-year-old Frank Robinson, who over the next few seasons helped lead the Reds back to respectability and the 1961 pennant. In 1963, another unforgettable debut: young Pete Rose took the field for the first time on April 8.
Other Hall of Famers have debuted in Cincinnati on Opening Day, including the Reds Bid McPhee (1882), manager Sparky Anderson (1970), the Braves Hank Aaron (1954), and broadcasters Red Barber (1934) and Marty Brennaman (1974). Aaron and Brennaman helped make the 1974 opener arguably the greatest in Reds Opening Day history. Brennaman debuted in the booth, and called Aaron's 714th home run which tied Babe Ruth's home run record. And the Reds overcame a 6-1 deficit to come back to win, 7-6, in 11 innings, a thrilling and historic day at Riverfront.
The only time Cincinnatians have not supported their Reds on Opening Day came in the early 1980s, when after the collapse of the Big Red Machine and front-office moves of Dick Wagner that angered many of the faithful, the Reds disintegrated, finishing last in 1982 and 1983. And the fans took out their displeasure by failing to support Opening Day. Less than capacity crowds (horrors!) for the 1983 and 1984 openers showed how far the Reds had fallen. But Pete Rose's return in 1984 re-kindled the excitement, and in 1985, 52,000 filled the ballpark for the opener on a day that featured all four seasons: it rained, it snowed, the sun shone, and the Reds won.
Opening Day was back, and has been ever since despite three difficult years in the mid-1990s. In 1994, a confusing scheduling mixup left the Reds opening on Easter Sunday evening. Owner Marge Schott refused to treat the game as anything special much to the dismay of ESPN and Major League Baseball, and instead scheduled all the hoopla for the next day, Monday afternoon, which was more in keeping with Reds traditions. Unfortunately, neither game was viewed by a capacity crowd. In 1995, with the players on strike, the baseball owners threatened to start the season with "replacement" players. Everything was in place for the opener, including the parade. But on the eve of the scheduled opening day, a settlement was reached, and players were permitted to have a shortened spring training. That delayed the opener for 23 days, but the parade organizers were left with a dilemma. With a lot of money already spent on the arrangements, and the organizers not sure they could re-group for the delayed opener, the parade went off as originally scheduled. Everything went fine...with a big crowd on hand to watch. There was just no game afterwards. Who needs a baseball game when you have a parade?!?
The following year. 1996, all the pre-game activities went as scheduled. A beautiful day, with Sparky Anderson on hand to throw out the first pitch. But just seven pitches into the game, umpire John McSherry collapsed. Depsite frantic efforts to revive him, McSherry died of a heart attack. The opener was postponed and played the next day. To this day, the umpire's dressing room in Cincinnati is named after McSherry.
Certainly one of the most memorable and historic Openers in recent history was the 2003 affair, when the Reds christened their new home, Great American Ball Park. It was only the second time since 1912 that the Reds had opened in a brand new facility on Opening Day. And to this date, the most thrilling of the GABP Opening Days came in 2005 when the Reds rallied from a 6-3 deficit to win, 7-6, over the New York Mets. Adam Dunn hit two home runs, including his second to tie the game 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth. With the crowd roaring, Reds third baseman Joe Randa then launched a game-winning home run into the left field bleachers, the first ever walk-off home run in Reds Opening Day history.
But these exciting game moments are often second in the memories of Reds fans. It is the excitement of Opening Day, the festive atmosphere, and what the game symbolizes: a new season and a chance to celebrate Cincinnati and its historic role in the development of the National Pastime. And it's holiday! Just like Sparky said, "Ain't nobody else got that!"
The game developed quite a reputation as a social event. Fans came by train from Hamilton and Dayton, and from east and west and south. Local dignitaries had to be seen at the game. A sure sign of the opener’s increasing popularity was the number of women in attendance, often sporting the finest and newest in spring fashion.
Mayor John Caldwell was apparently the first mayor to attend openers in the 1890s, and he was the first to “throw” out the ball to start the game. In 1895, from his box behind home plate, the mayor handed the ball, to the umpire. The next year, the mayor decided to toss the ball. Big mistake: his throw from the stands went over the head of the umpire, the first wild first pitch in Opening Day history.
By 1900, newspapers ran cartoons showing bosses and school kids each making up white lies so they could evade work and school and attend the game. In 1907, one Cincinnati newspaper urged fans to circulate a petition to declare the day a half-holiday, and suggested shop owners to close since “everybody will be at the park anyway.” Opening Day had become, in the minds of a public, an annual holiday. And it remains so today, more than 100 years later.
Cinergy Field on Opening Day, 1999. Singer Kenny Rogers (right) also performed.(Credit: Cincinnati Reds
Whatever your feelings about former Reds owner Marge Schott, she surely had it right when she said, “The Findlay Market Parade is Opening Day! Without the parade, it just wouldn’t be Opening Day!”
There are 15 openers held each year in baseball, and Cincinnati has lost its status as the first game of the season, and so, as Mrs. Schott proclaimed, it is the Findlay Market Parade with gives Cincinnati's its distinctive Opening Day atmosphere.
Not that anyone would ever confuse the Findlay Market Parade with the Rose Bowl Parade or the Macy’s Parade. This is not a pageant of majestic floats, extravagant musical productions, and corporate underwriting. Instead, it is grass-roots Cincinnati at its finest: a red convertible and pickup truck brigade, with a few modest floats, high school marching bands, and more politicians than roses. It is, after all, a parade organized by shopkeepers. They welcome nearly every group who wants to join the celebration. And the merchants of Findlay Market have been stepping to the plate for 80 years.
Findlay Market made its first appearance at Opening Day in 1920, but the market boys didn’t start the pageantry. The pre-game activities had been a regular part of the opener since the first parade was held in 1890. These early parades were very small, but they featured the teams themselves. The first parade had three streetcars: one carried the visiting Chicago team, one carried the Reds, and a marching band filled the third car.
These first parades were all about promoting the game: "Come on down to the ballpark and watch the opener!" Despite the interest they stirred, the Reds discontinued their parade in 1902. But the fans decided to take matters into their own hands, and so began the era of the "Rooter's Groups." These groups usually consisted of a few dozen fans, often from the same business, neighborhood, or social clubs. Waving flags, singing and tooting horns and noisemakers, the partiers rode through downtown in decorated horse-drawn wagons known as tallyhos. Some groups even rented their own streetcars. Within a few years as the automobile grew popular, many groups rode around in small trucks or convertibles.
The groups often met downtown around the lunch hour, consumed a few beverages, and started touring the city on their way to the ballpark in the West End at the intersection of Findlay and Western Avenue. There was no organized starting time, no official route. Instead, it resembled one large roving tailgate party. And often the festivities continued at the park. The groups would march around the field once or twice, and then take their seats, where they would continue to exercise their lungs in song and cheers.
In 1920, the Findlay Market rooter’s group joined the festivities, and soon became the biggest and best organized of all the groups. The rooter’s group tradition slowly faded away, but the Findlay Market delegation remained active. They smartly promoted their presence by bringing in the "official" American flag to fly over the ballpark, and presented the manager with a large bouquet of flowers at home plate. By the 1930s, the pre-game acitivities were being referred to as the Findlay Market Parade.
Throughout the Crosley Field era, until 1970, the "parade" was a small affair, usually limited to the shop owners and their friends and family. They marched down Findlay Street through the West End to the ballpark, usually to small crowds. Once inside the park, the spotlight shone on the group. The climax was a loop around the field in full view of the pre-game crowd, and the presentation of the flags and gifts to the Reds owner and manager.
With the Reds move downtown to Riverfront Stadium in 1970, the parade dynamics changed completely. Now, the line of march headed down Race Street and turned on Fifth and went right through the heart of downtown Cincinnati. Local television began covering the procession live for the first time. The parade became the focal point instead of the ballpark presentation. The parade organizers decided to open up the event to outside organizations and the entries grew to nearly 200. When Marge Schott purchased the Reds in the 1984, she used her connections with the Cincinnati Zoo to include elephants and other large animals that gave the entire event the feel of a circus.
As Lenny Harris, a Reds player in the 1990s put it, “There are a lot of good Opening Days, but it’s tough to top those elephants in Cincinnati.” Of course, the elephants often left a little residue on the field, but surely, pachyderms on a baseball diamond was a sight to behold.
The First Game
Veteran Cincinnati baseball fans will fondly recall that Cincinnati not only had the home opener every year, but that the Reds also hosted the first game of the season. And this tradition, which surely was embedded somewhere in the U.S. Constitution, or at least in the hallowed rules of Major League Baseball, was rudely snatched away from the Reds in the 1980s, and well, baseball just hasn’t been the same since.
The facts are otherwise, but the intensity of feelings about the first-game tradition only serve to remind all of us how much the National Pastime means to Cincinnatians.
The Reds did thost the first game of the season here for many years, but Cincinnati never had a long-standing tradition of opening the season a day early. But it did happen often enough and recent enough that most of us are sure it was a part of Reds baseball ever since 1869.
The first time Cincinnati hosted the first game of the season, a day earlier than all other clubs, was in 1939. And it was so odd that the newspapers ran a story to explain why it was happening. Prior to 1939, it had never happened. And it didn’t happen again until 1948, and then sporadically in the 1950s: 1951, 1953, 1955, and 1959.
This intermittent scheduling continued in the 1960s, with the Reds opening the season here a day early five times. Frequently the shared the early opening slot with the Washington Senators of the American League.
Then beginning in 1970 and for 14 of the next 16 seasons, the first pitch of the NL season was thrown here in Cincinnati. This was the heyday of Reds openers. The Big Red Machine was at its peak, and the Reds featured five of the biggest personalities in baseball in Sparky Anderson, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose.
So clearly, the opening the season here a day early was not a part of the established traditions of Major League Baseball, nor the National League, nor the Reds. It was an annual rite of spring, however, for enough years, to give all of us a sense of entitlement. We should start the season here in Cincinnati! It came to symbolize the great tradition of Cincinnati Reds baseball. And no one would argue (at least no one in Cincinnati) that it is a tradition worth restoring.
This story is a revised version of a history of Opening Day found in the book: Opening Day, Celebrating Cincinnati’s Baseball Holiday (2003), by John Erardi and Greg Rhodes.